Thoughts on Moving to Spain

 

Palau de la Musica Catalana

My favorite building interior ever

In six short days, I will be back in Spain, livin’ la vida loca. At least if you consider part-time unemployment in a foreign country and the headstrong following of dreams the crazy life. But I’m getting ahead of myself, what I really want to talk about is how I got here.

Right now I am feeling all kinds of emotions (as I am sure you can appreciate) as I pack 3 relatively small (albeit hefty) suitcases full of items I deem vital for a life abroad. I know I will be gone until Christmas and trying to pack for eight months isn’t actually the hard part – it’s organizing all the miscellaneous items I’m choosing to leave behind that’s proving difficult. How does one say goodbye to 24 years of things? I wish I could say I don’t need material positions, but this is the home I grew up in, the bedroom I carefully decorated, the items that comforted me with their presence and consistency.

Many of my favorite “things” don’t fit my 20 Questions game-like requirements for taking along with me. Is it smaller than a suitcase? Does it weigh less than a pound? Is it practical? If it’s not practical, would I risk it being taken by TSA? Questions of this nature. With these requirements in mind, a jar of moonshine, my friends new puppy, a stockpile of almond paste and various extracts and flours have all been eliminated.

Sure, deciding which clothes stay or go was tricky but this is my third time packing for Spain in the past year and a half, so I have a pretty good idea what I will and will not need. Shoes are a whole different story though, let me tell you. If I take my favorite heels, I’ll be taller than my boyfriend whenever we go out. Or, if I just wear them one night a month for girl’s night, they’re basically getting no usage time so isn’t it better to leave them here? My favorite boots are to die for, but if I come back at Christmas wouldn’t it be more practical to get them then – when I might actually conceive of wearing them in Barcelona’s climate?

Such are the questions that plague my mind every five minutes, along with the equally daunting but much more practical questions about how I will make enough money to cover my phone bill, health insurance, a gym membership (so necessary when you take into account all the jamón and potatoes I eat over there), an eventual apartment, groceries, Zara pocket money, etc., etc. I say that fairly flippantly but in all reality I have a budget drawn up for myself and know exactly how many euros I currently have in my bank account – and I mean down to the penny. I have students lined up and will talk to more friends and relatives of my boyfriend when I arrive about the English lessons they have all been asking me about. I am starting to find freelance writing jobs and all in all I think the money situation is as well in hand as it is for any 20-something-year-old in this day and age.

No, the only thing that is truly cramping my style (and delirious happiness at the prospect of moving to my favorite city in the world) is fear. The crippling, nightmare-ish, huge failure, shit-your-pants kind of fear.

To pinpoint exactly what is causing my sleepless nights would be almost impossible because I’ve been afraid of everything my whole life. Irrational and rational fears both come into play, but I have always been one to forecast the worst possible scenario. By age six I had worked myself up into such a state that I needed therapy to get over my fear of thunderstorms (side note: this did not completely work. I swear my stomach twisting itself into knots can predict the impending arrival of bad weather). I am also afraid of: tornadoes (rational), elevators (irrational?), drowning (even though I know how to swim), suffocation (…how?), bad grades in school, diseases, disappointing my parents, losing someone I love in a spontaneous and unpredictable accident (to be fair, this has happened multiple times in my family, so we will say it is a rational fear), ants, heart attacks (again…how? I am 24), that my friends don’t really like me, leaving home, that kids I am babysitting will choke, that I like being alone, that I am not living up to my potential, and so on and so forth.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking that most of these are pretty common fear. But my problem isn’t just the fear, it’s the fact that I can’t control the anxiety that racks my body when these fears take hold (which is something else I am afraid of – fear, anxiety and losing control).

Fear is the number one reason I am moving to Spain. Because it is so terrifying to me. I made this big decision, this exciting and potentially disastrous decision, in part because it was so scary and anxiety-inducing to me. I wanted to prove to myself that I could strike out boldly on my own and live to tell the tale. I wanted to quell my own fears of failure and embrace a lifelong dream. I’ve always known the kind of person I wanted to be and that person lives (unrealistically) without fear of tomorrow – only with appreciation for the present. The person I want to be is full of stories, inspiration, and perhaps a glass of wine or two.

The only thing stronger than my fear of failure in a foreign country (which could potentially lead to other fears such as disappointing my parents and not living up to my potential) is my fear of staying in one place forever. It was too easy for me to imagine my life before me: job-searching and living at home, working in my hometown, eventually moving out, finding a better 9-5 desk job, falling in line… Those things are great, but they are not what I have spent my whole life dreaming of. I traveled the world from the comfort of my bed through books and literature, a giant atlas I had, the internet, my imagination – and it was incredible, but it wasn’t enough. Not for me.

I am and have always been a visual person so I know that I need to see places, landscapes, faces, and beauty for myself, to know they exist. I am too easily jealous to let others explore the world for me and accept their second-hand retellings. I am too hungry to not to go and taste every exotic thing I possibly can (fried guinea pig and scorpion skewers spring to mind). I am at once too afraid and too restless to stay, and too stubborn to fail.

So I am going. I am moving to Spain. Everyone I talk to about this (my best friends, acquaintances, the guy at the pharmacy asking why I needed a year’s supply of allergy medicine) thinks it’s incredibly brave that I am leaving because they don’t know the truth. I am not brave. I am many things but brave is not one of them. I am passionate, curious, determined. I am smart, organized, creative, and kind. I’m funny and loyal and occasionally bitchy… But never brave.

My dad says I am jumping off a cliff without so much as checking for a safety net, and I know he has a point. I know he is worried about my health, my diet, my finances, my future. Deep down though, I know he’s wrong, that my safety net is there: my values, my friends and family, my will to succeed, my lust for life. It seems impulsive and stupid but this is the most difficult and thoughtful decision I have ever made. I may be afraid of everything but I am so afraid of losing this opportunity, of letting myself down, of settling, that I am willing to fake brave long enough to jump.

I want to share this journey, share my triumphs and downfalls, my gluten-free meals, my pet peeves, joys and daily thoughts with you.

Zaragoza Sin Gluten

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in front of Zaragoza’s Cathedral and Caesar Augustus Museum

View from the Basilica del Pilar’s tower; afternoon light inside

I knew when I decided to move to Spain that it wouldn’t all be sunshine and rainbows and jamón. I also knew due to my prior experience dealing with Spaniards (who are truly lovely but do not understand the meaning of “urgent” or “quickly”) that obtaining legal documentation to live here wouldn’t be a walk in the Parc [Guell]. But being mentally prepared for a sticky, not to mention infuriating, situation and actually living through it are two completely different things. I have started literally pulling my hairs out one by one and it’s gotten to the point that my boyfriend has to sit next to me and grab my hands when we’re watching tv or reading just so I won’t go bald.

I have absolutely nothing to complain about though because I am enduring this immigration-war-of-attrition (which is how I think of the situation between me and the Spanish Consulate in Washington DC at this point) from one of the most beautiful cities in the world – Barcelona.

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Pablo Serrano/Modern Art Museum

Even so, there comes a time when a girl just has to get out of town for the sake of her sanity, her boyfriend’s sanity, and her remaining hairs. This thinking led my boyfriend and I to plan two short weekend trips – one to Zaragoza, Spain and one to Rome, Italy. Our trip to Rome was scheduled for this weekend but given the current global situation – terrorist threats and worldwide travel warnings – we decided we didn’t want to travel to such a popular international city if we could go another time. Our trip to Zaragoza however was a few weeks ago and with all the stress, sadness, fear, and hatred in the world right now I figured this would be a good time to share some beautiful photos and peaceful thoughts from our one-night getaway to Zaragoza. (And also because I have lots of free time right now since I don’t have to pack for Rome and it’s the Spanish Consulate’s turn to make a move regarding my visa.)

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Details from inside Zaragoza’s Alfajeria Palace

We chose Zaragoza for a few simple reasons: Neither my boyfriend nor I had ever been there, the bus tickets were incredibly cheap, and the Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar is there and it is one of Spain’s most beautiful churches, possibly even one of its most beautiful buildings.

Zaragoza is in the province of Aragón in the Northeastern part of Spain, and as my boyfriend was quick to point out, the people there have “weird accents” compared to Catalunya (honestly it’s all Spanish to me). Zaragoza is not considered a big tourist destination and apart from the attraction of the basilica I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a particularly beautiful, but it was absolutely worth the visit. Like all cities it has its pros and cons and as we discovered in a fascinating (for me) exhibit at the modern art museum, the local government, city planners, and architects have done an incredible amount of work in the past decade to give the city a face lift and improve quality of life for its citizens. The exhibit was about the changing city fabric over time, but focused heavily on improvements made for the International Expo of 2008 held there. Again, Zaragoza is no Granada or Bilbao (two cities in Spain I adore), but this exhibition gave me a new appreciation for the city as we walked the streets.

Architecture (and weather!) mash-up

We also got incredibly lucky with the food there – for a city that lives on tapas and everything breaded, fried, or simply placed on top of bread, I ate some great gluten-free dishes. One of Spain’s easiest and oldest dishes is huevos rotos, or broken eggs, most commonly seen in the Canary Islands, but also enjoyed in different regions around Spain (I have not seen this in Catalunya as of yet). Potatoes are pan fried with jamón or mushrooms and at the last minute two sunny-side up eggs are broken over the top and served. In tapas bars with delicious and cheap wines, this plate was a life/night saver for me, if you know what I mean.

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We were also drawn to a restaurant that displayed its meat/carcasses in glass freezers at the entrance of the restaurant. While it may sound unappetizing or even morbid to some, my boyfriend and I loved the industrial feel and cool factor this provided. The waiter was also incredibly knowledgeable about celiac disease and informed me that almost anything I wanted could be prepared on a separate grill. And then he offered me “celiac bread” (which is what they call gluten-free bread here because no Spaniards other than the celiacs want gluten-free bread).

*Side note: The bread most restaurants serve when they say “celiac bread” is from a company called Airos. It comes in individual, oven-safe packets that include a list of ingredients and are then heated up. On several occasions my boyfriend has told me this oven-warmed Airos bread is better than what he is given and I must say I agree. While in general fresh bread in Spain is amazing, Airos can give more than a few bakeries a run for their money. It can also be found in local supermarkets (not the tiny mercados or “quick&easy” grocery stores) around Spain – for me this means my favorite Carrefour.

So it was here at La Lobera de Martín that we enjoyed huevos rotos with jamón yet again, only this time the waiter breaking the yolks open right in front of us. Everyone took great care of me and I felt very safe eating at la Lobera. Maybe even a little too safe – as I tried to take a bite of my boyfriend’s Argentinian cut beef (from the grill, so I assumed “it’s safe! YAY!”) our waiter happened to be walking by and said “stop! We did not cook that special for you!” Having been duly chastened, I returned to my own plate and mopped up every bit with my celiac bread.

Handsome man and our meal at La Lobera 

Another hidden gem for the gluten-free among us was 3 Lunas Taberna, which we chose for our first meal in Zaragoza mainly because there were empty tables and we were dying to sit down. Despite the lack of clientele, this restaurant served great arroz negro (literally “black rice” colored with squid ink) and simple yet delicious Spanish dishes. The staff here also took great care in preparing for me and making sure it was “okay” if they did my potatoes different from my boyfriends because they didn’t want to chance any cross-contamination. Oh, and we got two mini oven-warmed “celiac” baguettes for free since I couldn’t eat the “normal” bread that came with the €11 menú del dia.

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Zaragoza from above in 2008

All in all, we had a really nice gluten-free (and cold!) weekend. I think we both agreed that the best part was paying €3 to go up in one of the basilica’s towers… The view from the top was absolutely breath-taking (both figuratively and literally because I was panting a little due to my fear of heights). Our tapas crawl sprawled through the old town but it was centered around Calle Libertad, which is packed with Zaragozanos any given weekend. ¡Buen provecho!

48h Open House Barcelona

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Parabolic arches inside Colegio Teresiano

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details inside Casa del Baro de Quadras by Puig i Cadafalch

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For the past five years, 48hour Open House Barcelona has organized a weekend long architecture festival in the fall. For just two days in October over 150 buildings that are normally closed to the public participate in this event of portes obertes (open doors) and grant free entry to visitors. These buildings include the 125 year old school designed by Gaudí himself, an old Estrella Damm factory, water towers, buildings by Gaudí’s contemporaries such as Puig i Cadafalch and Domènech i Montaner, modern and luxury apartment buildings and hotels, architect’s offices, the terraces of the Gothic churches, and more. Last year I was oblivious to the fact that this event even existed so you can imagine my glee when I realized I could actually visit – for free – some of the most famous buildings in all Barcelona, let alone Spain.

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Colegio Teresianos

I planned my two days very carefully with a chart that included highlighted “must-sees”, checkmarks next to buildings I was interested in seeing, crossed-out sections of neighborhoods that were too far away to possibly get to, and little hearts next to buildings I had already visited. Needless to say, nearly the entire 3-page list of buildings (a list organized by neighborhood that is provided by the organizers) was highlighted in bright yellow. I started cross-checking the locations and opening times of each building (because every building has a different schedule, and unlike the name LED ME TO BELIEVE, they are not open the entire weekend) and made a very good itinerary.

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Details from the inside courtyard and facade of Palau Macaya, also by Puig i Cadafalch

With lists in hand, blank notebook, camera, and map in hand I set out on my weekend long tour of architecture that included – after all that planning – a grand total of four buildings. Yes, four. Just four. It turns out half of Catalunya was just as excited about the even as I was and most buildings has lines winding down the streets, turning corners, etc.

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Photos from Monasterio de Pedralbes; also part of 48 hour Open House Barcelona

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The important thing to take away from this is that life never goes according to plan, even when you use post-it notes and colored-coded pens. I did prioritize however and I made it to my #1 must-see for the weekend, the Colegio Teresiano designed by Gaudí.

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Parabolic arches in Colegio Teresiano

Located in the well-to-do neighborhood of Sarrià, this school is still in use today and known as the Col-legi Santa Teresa Granduxer to the students and local community. The outside of stone and brick work was impressive to be sure, but the Christian inscriptions which in English translate to “Jesus Christ Our Savior”, and four-sided crosses that adorned the rooftop are what gave this building away as one of Gaudí’s projects.

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Me inside Colegio Teresiano, and the front entry

If the outside is inspiring, then the inside is absolutely mind-blowing. We had to walk in silence through the halls (just like naughty students!) because the sisters who live and teach in the Teresian school still live in the building, just as they did in 1890 (presumably not the same sisters as back then). Spiraling brick columns and high windows and skylights, as well as the dozens of parabolic arches found in the upper story, give the massive building an overall sensation of lightness. The columns in the attic start to hint at a tree-like structure, a feeling of being in the woods, which is also on of the features that make the interior of the Sagrada Familia so breath-taking.

My boyfriend (who braved the 2 hour wait with me) and I both walked away from our short (Spanish) tour of this building in awe of the genius of the eccentric and unpopular (in his time) architect. I can not wait to see what next years list holds.

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A trick of the light; Elevation of Colegio de les Teresianas (name in Catalan)

Stay tuned for more gluten-free travels and even more of my favorite buildings in Barcelona…!

Lisbon, Portugal – Part 2

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Basílica da Estrela

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Mosteiro dos Jerónimos

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My best friend just sent me a message reminding me of something Ernest Hemingway used to say, “Write drunk, edit sober” and since I am home alone in a pueblo outside of Barcelona, I decided this was more of a command than a simple sharing of literary quotes. So here I am on my little Spanish foam rectangle (I’m really not sure what else to call it – “mattress” is too generous a word) with a small bottle of Jack Daniels and a carton of orange juice. I know it’s no glass of wine (which is how I imagine other people drinking alone) and you may raise your eyebrows in disgust or at least skepticism, but in a weird way it’s a reminder of home. Here in the land of wine, sangria, and gluten-free Estrella Damm Daura, drinking whiskey is almost like a trip to Starbucks, KFC, or the American Embassy (where I’ve also been, but more on that later).

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Basílica da Estrela and a view of the Portuguese flag at Castelo de São Jorge

Needless to say, I don’t drink alone how I think you’re supposed to and I realized on my recent solo trip to Lisbon that I don’t travel alone the way you’re supposed to either. Once I start walking the morning I don’t really stop until I’m ready to pass out at 8pm. Aside from my detailed google docs about local museums, hotspots, historical sites, and restaurants, I also write down street names, directions, opening hours and admission costs of everywhere I want to go in a little notebook that I keep with me at all times. This obsessive planning could be a side-effect of celiac disease though; I always do research on how food is prepared in the country I am visiting, what’s my best bet for gluten-free food, how to pronouce various words related to my dietary needs, and where to find organic groceries (because organic stores usually also mean gluten-free jackpot). Whatever the root of this need to plan my every move in new cities, I always walk fast, with determination, and always, always in the wrong direction.

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Museo Nacional de Arte Contemporáneo

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View of Lisbon from Castelo de São Jorge

So despite my copious amount of note-taking and preparing I always seem to spend half my time lost on public transportation or down side streets that I can’t locate anywhere on my map. Lisbon was no exception to this rule but I still managed to cover a lot of ground and even made it to a few free concerts and fell in love with Portuguese Fado music. Other than finding a concert during your travels in Lisbon, I would recommend the modern art museums in Lisbon, which were especially good, and the (free!) design museum located in the heart of the city. The tile museum was both a long trek and kind of a let down, while the castle was an uphill battle (literally) but absolutely worth it – even first thing in the morning. The cathedral is worth a quick look but in my opinion (and my Turkish roommate’s opinion as well) not nearly as impressive or awe-inspiring as Lisbon’s many monasteries, churches, and basilicas. As for eating gluten-free in Lisbon, I stuffed my favorite day bag full of Luna bars and prayed for the best but, just as in Spain, it turns out I didn’t have to worry.

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Monastery of São Vicente de Fora

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Tombs; Monastery of São Vicente de Fora

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Guess what’s for dinner? Silver display at the Museu Gulbenkian

Aside from copious amounts of cheese, cured meat, and olives available in the Iberian Peninsula, I’ve found that these countries (and much of Europe, really) take cooking and eating very, very seriously – which is both good and bad news for celiacs. It’s bad because they (be “they” French, Italian, Czech, Spanish, Irish, or German) enjoy nothing more than a warm croissant or a crusty, fresh-baked baguette and let me tell you, the smell alone is enough to make even the strongest-willed celiac crack (not that we do… because, you know, the next day would be awful).

The good news however, is that due to this passion for food, every chef, waiter, and barrista I’ve ever encountered has been able to tell me whether or not something I want to order either contains gluten or is prepared in a contaminated area. The “gluten-free diet” may be a foreign concept, but digestive and autoimmune diseases seem, to me at least, to be much more commonly understood than they are in the US. In America, if I say I have celiac disease, I get a blank stare from waiters until I explain I can only eat gluten-free foods. Here, it works the other way around. I spent my first month in Spain last year trying to explain I couldn’t eat gluten to very confused waiters until one of them finally said, “Oh! You mean your celiac?” In that moment I couldn’t help but thinking, man, these are my kind of people.

Between this collective knowledge of celiac disease, my knowledge of Portuguese that consists solely of “sem gluten” (gluten free) and “obrigado” (thank you), and these very helpful celiac dining cards, I never had any problems eating in Portugal. Breakfast can be the trickiest meal to sort out due to aforementioned love of fresh-baked gluten, but yogurt and eggs are always pretty easy to find. At lunch, I usually look for a hearty salad, and for dinner I’ve found that traditional dishes of meat, seafood, potatoes, etc. tend to be safe bets; they can easily be prepared without a gluten-containing sauce, as I’ve experienced many times.

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Loved the all white of this temporary exhibit in the Museo Nacional de Arte Contemporáneo

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Torre de Belém

If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s to never be afraid or embarrassed to ask for help. I’ve only ever been met with politeness, great service, and good food in my travels and by double checking with waiters and even chefs about your food, you can avoid being ill for the rest of your trip. So go boldly my celiac friends, and travel your little hearts out!

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My favorite photo from Lisbon – taken somewhere near São Vicente de Fora

Lisbon, Portugal – Part 1

Aaaah Europe! Another year, another adventure, another gluten-free holiday before I buckle down and begin my job search in Barcelona. This short 3-day tour of Lisbon was different for me than all my other trips however for one notable reason: I was traveling alone… In a foreign country… For the first time ever. I mean, yes, I did master the Barcelona metro alone and go into the catacombs in Paris alone, but I always went confidently knowing that my friends, my study abroad program coordinators, and my wifi connection were all there to help if things got really desperate. This time it was just me, two incredibly heavy suitcases, two boxes of gluten-free Luna bars, and one sweet little Airbnb apartment located at the top of one very steep hill.

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To say my solo vacation got off to a rough start would be an understatement. After sleeping just 1 hour on my overnight flight from Boston to Lisbon, I found myself sitting in a Portuguese Starbucks with all my worldly belongings (or so it seemed) ready for the world’s longest siesta. I should mention at this point that although I love a good Pumpkin Spice Latte as much as the next American female, I was only at this Starbucks (instead of say, a historic café) for three very important reasons: I needed to use their wifi to contact my Airbnb host, it was located just inside the train station right near where I was staying, and I knew they had a bathroom. Just in case.

While I was waiting I contemplated my decision to move – jobless – to Spain and wondered vaguely why my stomach was hurting so much, assuming it was from the flight, jetlag, emotional turmoil, etc. But then I realized it was probably because I had forgotten to take my much needed acid reflux medicine, and in almost that same instant I ran to the “just-in-case-I-need-it-Starbucks-bathroom” bathroom, and threw up. Anyone who thinks being a celiac and living a gluten-free is boring has clearly never tried traveling with me.

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After receiving a message from my Airbnb host shortly after this incident, I took the most rejuvenating 3-hour nap of my life, ate some (gluten-free) quinoa salad I had bought at Starbucks, and finally, finally joined the wonderful world that is Portugal.

And it was AMAZING.

I went to Portugal for the first time last year on a short weekend trip to Porto and loved it almost as much as I love Spain. And sure enough, when I started walking around Lisbon for that first time that gorgeous day, I caught myself thinking that maybe I should’ve chosen this as the city to run away to. Then I overheard a couple speaking in Portuguese and the daydream ended. As beautiful as the language is (it sounds like Elvish to me), I had enough trouble learning Spanish and remembering which Catalan word meant “pull” and which meant “push”.

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So I decided to enjoy Lisbon for the next three days and see as much as possible, starting with Carmo Convent right outside my front door. Ruined by an earthquake in 1755, this medieval, roofless convent is Portugal’s answer to Tintern Abbey and a must-see for some unexpected beauty. My plan was to then wander through the streets of Lisbon but just one block over I got distracted by a bio grocer full of fresh produce, a café, and gluten-free goodies to stock up on for the weekend! With my assortment of breads tucked safely into my purse, I made my way down one of Lisbon’s 101284799 hills and found one of the city’s oldest and best gelaterias – Gelados Santini. With sour cream and pistachio scoops in hand (cup, no wafer cookies on top) I made my way back to my little bed to sleep before the long day I had planned.IMG_1329 (2)IMG_1111 (2)

The next morning began with yogurt from the bio grocery and a seeded gf roll with fresh cheese my Airbnb roommate so graciously offered me. First stop – Praça de Comércio, formerly known to me as “that pretty yellow building square in Lisbon”. From there I went to a nearby metro station to buy a transportation pass good for the trams, buses, and metros all day long for only €6,00. The plan for the day was to get lost in Belém and see some of Lisbon’s most well-known attractions while I was in the neighborhood.

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I skipped the line first thing at the Jerónimos Monastery and headed instead to the Centro Cultural de Belém, home to the Museu Coleção Berardo. The museum itself is a very cool modern and contemporary art museum with free admission and the cultural center also has a modern rooftop garden and restaurant that overlook the Padrão dos Descobrimentos.

After my artsy morning I hiked uphill to the Palácio Nacional da Ajuda because it was highlighted in so many guidebooks and maps. Many of these helpful tourist guides forget to point out however that this palace was never finished, abandoned, and now houses… nothing other than a tiny “museum” of the incomplete building. And also a café that serves a very interesting Portuguese dish that was (hurray!) gluten free. I don’t know if it is always prepared gluten-free, but at the Palácio’s cafeteria I enjoyed a very cheap lunch of vegetables, fresh salad, and what appeared to be a kind of Shepard’s Pie prepared with salted cod in lieu of meat and potatoes and cheese in lieu of… well, everything else. All in all, my trip was going very well and my gluten-free discoveries just beginning!

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Macarons in Paris

Once upon a time in Paris, there was a well-dressed young woman traveling with her friends who could not eat gluten. Not eat gluten in Paris?! The horror! The agony! The baguettes and the croissants… oh my! But our heroine persevered. Pastries and crepes may have been off-limits but we’re forgetting one very important thing Paris is also famous for – the macaron. And so, one dreary morning our savvy celiac went out and scoured the streets of Paris (but really had a map and knew exactly where to go) to find the legendary Laduree macaron emporium and Pierre  Herme patisserie, proving that alls well that ends with macarons and a trip to the Paris opera house.

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La Mere Catherine, Paris

sacre coeur at night

Sacre-Coeur by night

Since I haven’t had time to bake anything lately thanks to a full course load this semester, multiple home improvement projects and my job nannying the worlds cutest children, I thought I would finally write a post from… Paris! I visited the city of coffee, pastries and macarons way back in November over Thanksgiving weekend (which, of course, Europeans do not acknowledge). Since my friends and I had missed possibly the best food-centered holiday back home (1. I know its supposed to be about giving thanks and we totally did… but come one, turkey! and 2. I say “possibly” because we all know Valentine’s Day is made for chocolate and who doesn’t like a good 4th of July cookout?) we decided to treat ourselves to a nice meal in Montmartre after an incredible tour of the district with Sandemans which I would highly recommend.

On a dark cold night we learned all about the Montmartre neighborhood, saw van Gogh’s apartment, the Moulin Rouge, and Sacre-Coeur by night before ending at the highest point in Paris which was also home to the first ever bistro that coincidentally shared the name of one of my friends and I – La Mere Catherine. If the history and name alone hadn’t already convinced us to go in, the nice waiter at the front door informing us there was live music inside would have done the trick.

We sat down to red wine and a beautiful piano accompaniment (the instrument played by a beautiful French man, no less) and I promptly pulled out my gluten-free dining card in French – and may I just say thank LAWD for that piece of paper. (Which you can print out for free here!) Our waitress was the most helpful and sweetest person I could have possibly been met with. I wanted to order the combined meal that was both an appetizer and entree and she took it upon herself to personally quiz the chef each time I asked about a dish. A lot of sauce and soup bases in France use flour so this was particularly comforting. After several trips to an from the kitchen, our waitress helped me choose a pumpkin soup, snails in garlic butter (aka escargot) and a entree of steak and potatoes and salad, sans dressing/gravy that had originally been intended for the steak.

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a horribly dark “mood-lit” picture of my steak at La Mere Catherine

The steak was a little dry (I imagine because it was lacking that damned gluten sauce) but everything else I ate that night was heavenly and I felt so well-taken care of that I wasn’t the least bit worried about getting sick. The restaurant does nothing to advertise as gluten-free or celiac-friendly, but I found people all over Paris willing to help me and answer my questions about food. And when all else failed, I got macarons and coffee!

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the absolute best soup I’ve ever had – pumpkin creme soup

If you find yourself in Paris anytime soon and can or cannot eat gluten – I would definitely recommend La Mere Catherine. It’s a little pricey (at least for students! And by that I mean I paid somewhere between 30 – 40 euros for the soup, escargot, entree – which was steak, salad, and potatoes gratin – and a glass of hot wine) but well worth the trip for the service alone. I wish I knew our waitresses name… I mean, she even taught me how to get snails out of their shells to eat!

exotic gluten-free food and I!
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The Best Tapas of All

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Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

This past weekend I went to Basque Country in Northern Spain with some friends. Famous not only for its mountains, The Northern Way of the Camino, its obscure language and rich history but also for some of the most incredible food in the country, if not the world. Some of the most famous chefs in Spain come from Pais Basco so you can imagine I was jumping up and down at the prospect of heading there.

We stayed in Bilbao and visited the Guggenheim before heading out on a mini tapas crawl I planned with the help of yelp, lonely planet, Rick Steves and Google maps. The first place was a bust, the second had perfectly cooked skewers of meat and the third was an absolute gold mine of deliciousness. The terrace and restaurant were bustling so we settled for standing room at the edge of the bar and chatted in Spanish to one of the servers. We watched wide eyed and drooling as plate after plate passed bye and others came back practically licked clean. The main dishes ranged from 12 euro to 30 but after sampling their 3.50 euro tapas… I can’t even imagine how incredible the big plates are.

Phototastic-2014-11-24-14-06-08my best friends and the best tapas

First we ordered wine and beer for the three of us, followed by patatas bravas, tapa txipi encebollada, tapa mozzarella, and tapa huevo + foie gras. We honestly had no idea what we were about to get but the bread was served on the side and the potatoes fried separately so it was safe for this happy little celiac.

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tapa mozzarella

The patatas bravas – a staple all over Spain – were the best we’ve ever had and the swooning started immediately. Then we dove into the txipi encebollada (calamari? scuttle fish? octopus? The verdict is still out…) with caramelized onions and collectively let out an audible gasp – it was that good. The tapa mozzarella turned out to be fresh mozza in a pool of pesto with sun dried tomatoes, pine nuts and salad on top. Incredible. And last but not least was the most interesting and sweetest of the tapa trio, the potato puree with egg, foie gras and mushrooms. Served in a tiny pan yet rich enough for me and my two best friends to get our share of, it was, if not my favorite, an experience on its own.

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tapa huevo + foie gras

We raved so much about these glorious tapas that we took our other friend back the next night (she missed our crawl due to homework and a headache) and ordered almost all the same things with the edition of some mystery tapas. One was pork neck and was so tender and juicy and served with asparagus that we all had to order our own instead of share. The other meat tapa remains an enigma but was one of my favorites. A small portion of meat with gravy served on potato puree, it was like eating Christmas dinner made by one of the best chefs in Spain.

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pork neck!

Dessert was chocolate mousse that may (or may not?) have contained a gluten-filled wafer cookie in the bottom. While it was fantastic (of course) I’d recommend my fellow celiac’s steer clear of that specific dessert. We finally left after oohing and aahing all over again right at closing time, thanking our same waiter friend from the night before and basically dancing out onto the street. 
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happy celiac in Spain chowing down on tapas and red wine

If you ever, ever find yourself in Bilbao, I am telling you La Vina del Ensanche is a life-changing meal.

Gluten Free in Prague? Czech.

Of all my mini-trips during this fall semester in Spain, going to Prague was the one that had me most worried food-wise. What do they eat there? And does anyone really understand that tricky language? Who knows. But I can tell you they eat like every day is a mid-winter holiday and it is amazing and dense and rich and gluten-filled.

Imagine my surprise then when an entire weekend went by without so much as a stomachache or dizzy spell from accidental gluten consumption. In fact, I would say I managed to eat better there than almost anywhere else and I owe a large part of that success to having printed out one of these bad boys to help with the language barrier. I’ve never used a gluten free dining card before and it truly saved my life. At restaurants I would simply present it to the waitress and when I went to order they would help me find something gluten free on the menu AND free from cross-contamination. I ate myself into a blissful, gluten-free, food coma.

I didn’t just eat there though. My friends and I found an underground cave/bunker bar, visited Terezin (one of the largest ghettos from WW2), walked to Prague Castle and Cathedral, crossed the Charles Bridge, visited the Lennon Wall, aaand ate some more. I snacked on chips as per usual but also found a nice gluten-free section at Tesco near the main square of Prague. For breakfast I packed and then bought certified gluten free oats because that is the best breakfast in frigid Prague. (Okay, it wasn’t that cold, but we were coming from Barcelona!!)

IMG_9131 (2)astronomical clock in Old Town Square

Our first night in Prague we went to a restaurant suggested by my friend who is studying there and its a good thing we showed up early (at 6:00pm) because by the time we left, and even the next evening when we walked by, the whole place was packed and there were lines out the door. U Medvidku is a hotel and restaurant with a brewery and outstanding food. I ordered and devoured grilled pork tails with garlic sauce, devil sauce (not spicy but maybe people in Prague think it is?), and a side of cabbage.

IMG_9116 (2)grilled pork tails with all the fixin’s

That gorgeous meal (horrible photo taken in a dark dining room) left me with a great first impression of Prague’s food that would last all throughout the weekend. The next morning, we were off on our walking tour guided by my old roommate and took in all the sights while huddling together for warmth. Our breakfast/brunch stop was at MLS Bistro on the hill up to Prague Castle. I had a deliciously gluten free goat cheese omelette with a salad and coffee for under $9. In fact, we loved it so much we back for brunch the next day to say goodbye to my friends before our plane left. On this occasion I inhaled a buckwheat crepe stuffed with basil pesto, mozzarella and sundried tomatoes followed by a glass of hot wine – my absolute favorite new drink. Its like sangria and Christmas got together and reproduced, giving birth to this heavenly drink.

IMG_9291 (2)even the bad lighting in this photo can’t keep me from swooning…. – MLS Bistro

Now I know being gluten-free is hard enough without having to hear about everyone elses delicious desserts, but I have to mention the trdlenik’s in Prague. What are they? Dough that’s been cooked into a large, hollow cylinder and then filled with chocolate, cinnamon, walnuts, or jam. They were all over Prague and even though none of the people I know can pronounce their name (Turtleneck? Tradelink?) they all agreed MLS Bistro makes a damn good dough shell thingy.

IMG_9290 (2)Trdlenik – NOT GLUTEN FREE – caution!!! (unless you’re normal, in which case enjoy)

IMG_9245 (2)$2 for happiness in a convenient takeaway cup

Last but not least but certainly not least was our smorgasbord dinner at Restaurant Mlejnice. There are two locations not to far from each other so while one was full, the nice waiters called ahead to the other to make sure we could be seated there. What they didn’t know is we would need to be rolled out of our seats after that meal.

For starters, my roommate from Spain and I split a warm brie wheel (small) with cranberry sauce. Although it came with a side of bread my roommate is super careful and separated all the cheese before touching her bread at all. It was so delicious I almost didn’t want my starter. But then…. my main course arrived and it was incredible. Pork tenderloin on a skewer with vegetables and red pepper sausage that the waitress helped me pick out due to its gluten-free-safe-ness. The pork was incredible, the vegetables fantastic and the sausage… yum! My side of potatoes was underwhelming and my friends side of grilled veg tasted way worse which was weird considering how good mine was but overall everyone was satisfied. We all had beers (my friends) and hot wine (me, duh) and enjoyed a leisurely, filling dinner together.

IMG_9264 (2)my very weirdly saturated photo of a phenomenal meal

After this feast we were hungry again somehow though and moved on the Cafe Louvre for a hot raspberry sundae dessert. Oh Prague, how I miss your food!

When You Can’t Eat Croissants in France…

Celiac disease is hard. Traveling with celiac disease is not only hard, it is at times traumatic, tearful, pathetic, embarrassing, and enraging. If you have a food intolerance then I am willing to bet you understand that it is absolutely possible and normal to experience all these emotions at once. And that also pretty much sums up my amazing trip to the South of France this weekend – completely breathtaking yet marred by frustration and extreme food envy.

Traveling with friends means you will also feel the added sense of guilt over not being able to eat with them everywhere they go. My friends in Spain are the best ever and want to find places I can eat too but every celiac knows this is not always a possibility. Cue the inner turmoil: Do I buy tons of snacks (aka rice cakes) and just eat those all day every day? What if they want my expensive gluten-free snacks? Maybe I can distract them with gum. What if they offer me their food? You’re too kind but no I don’t want to try your gluten-containing meal. QUICK does this restaurant they like have anything I can eat? Do these potatoes look like they were fried with other flour-battered things? Maybe I should just have gelato for dinner and chips later to make this easier.

I have at one point or another thought all of these things to myself. Usually all in one day and especially in France where I was constantly wondering what I could eat while friends were enjoying their warm chocolate croissants.

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Basilica of St. Sernin, Toulouse, South of France

Okay now we’re done with the brief pity party let’s get to my favorite topic – food. Breakfast at the hotel in Toulouse was provided for us and here I was able to employ my common sense and enjoy a drama-free meal. I bee-lined for the prepackaged yogurts and apple sauces, juices, meats and cheeses at the hotel buffet and was always pretty full after. I also grabbed mini servings of Nutella in case I found a gluten free snack to smother it with later on in the day. Fortunately the first day started off with a walking tour of Toulouse and a little wine and cheese tasting to fill me the rest of the way up!

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wine & cheese, cheese & wine

Lunch is usually the trickiest for me but in the south of France I think I got pretty lucky. Day ones lunch was provided by my host mom in the form of salami on gluten free bread (it is a testament to Spanish meats that I can tell you they make even gluten free bread completely palatable). The second day I had a picnic with my friends by the river with the food we found at local markets. Everyone I was with got excited when I found some fresh baked gluten free bread – in France of all places! I went for the buckwheat/corn option because the rice/corn option sounded like everything else I eat but if buckwheat is not your thing or if you haven’t tried it – steer clear!! It cost 3,75 euro but I still have some leftover because it is so dense. Again, if you like buckwheat it’s worth the investment.

IMG_8927 (2)me with my gluten-free bread in a market in Toulouse

Aside from this incredible glutey free find, I split a gorgeous little round of goat cheese with a friend so my bread would taste even better. We cut it in half and got our own knives to avoid any crumb cross-contamination. Annoying but necessary when sharing food with normals. If you’re as lucky as I am, your friends will be completely understanding and just so happy you can eat something that they eat.

IMG_8943 (2)the world’s most beautiful goat cheese

Picnics are a great way to fill yourself and I filled up on my gluten free bread, cheese, nutella, champagne and tons of fruit in our little riverside park location that day. Europe has fruit vendors and open air markets everywhere so when your need is dire you are never to far from delicious, fresh produce. Even when you’re not a starving allergen-ridden tourist the fruit here is amazing. I always find myself staring wistfully at the array of produce and wondering what the hell some of it is.

IMG_8936 (2)one of many colorful markets in Toulouse, France

Day threes lunch in Collioure (pictured below!) started off with chocolate coconut gelato because I did not think I would be able to translate another scary French menu. But as luck would have it my friends and I chose a crepe place not only with an English menu but with a meal option that included a huge omelette and generous “side” salad.  The lesson we learned here was that even in the tiny, picturesque town of Collioure there is hope, my celiac friends.

IMG_9032 (2)Collioure, France

Last but not least – dinner. The first night I downed half a rotisserie chicken and roasted potatoes with a friend. We also split a basic salad with dressing (olive oil and herbs) on the side just in case it wasn’t gluten free (the owner and only waiter did not speak any English). For dinner the second night in France my friends wanted to go out for a fairly nice, sit down meal which naturally filled me with anxiety (because obviously I can’t eat a damned thing on the menu). But I worried for nothing because we chose a charming place called La Reserve that does a wide variety of Italian food and has the added bonus of being near the river park in Toulouse where all our friends were gathering after dinner. The staff was extremely accommodating to our group of 8 rowdy American students and everyone’s meal was fantastic – including mine. Pretty much the only thing I could order on the menu was a salad and while it came in at around 16 euros total, it was worth its weight in jamon. Seriously, half the plate was dry cured meat, and the rest was tomatoes, grilled peppers, onion, Parmesan, fresh Mozzarella and a a hint of lettuce. I know it seems like I end up with a lot of salads (and I do!) but even when they cost upwards of $20.00 USD it is absolutely worth it to be able to enjoy a worry-free meal with amazing people in a spectacular French city. Just like I said in Porto, I’ll have the salad – and I’ll enjoy the heck out of it.

IMG_8985 (2)dark grainy picture of a HUGE cheese and jamon stacked salad in Toulouse, France at La Reserve